Essay: Deliberate Beauty
“listen I love you joy is coming.”
The pandemic and perimenopause--the right and the left speaker that give stereo to my life--have fucked up my sleep. Accustomed now to waking up every two hours or so, I have a comfort routine at the ready: rather than surrendering to the double hell of insomnia and hot flashes, I soothe myself with eyeliner.
Ancient Egyptian painted alabaster head from Treasure of Tutankhamen, New Kingdom, XVIII Dynasty. Photo By DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images via artsy.net
I surf websites of just about every cosmetics line known to humanity, and some which are not, that carries eyeliner in colours more than black and brown, and I lull myself with the blues, greens and purples; from the glitter reflective gel liners to the matte, the pencils to the pots.
And then when I give up trying to snatch any more two-hour pockets of sleep, I eat my breakfast, cleanse and moisturize and prepare for my favourite part of the day: holding a brush in one hand and a pot of eyeliner in the other as I apply the colour of the day around my eyes. I admire the lines that I have learned to draw perfectly around my eyes--often with a sweet little wing at the edges that is like a wink to myself--and I consider my handiwork both homage and healing.
Homage because (of course) my people of Egypt - men and women of all social classes - were wearing eyeliner as early as 6000 BC. And being a writer, I am particularly delighted that the hieroglyphic term for makeup artist derives from the root “sesh,” which translates to write or engrave. As I hold that brush, I feel like a calligrapher, writing a letter of love to myself: “listen I love you joy is coming.”
And here is the healing: the ancient Egyptian word for “makeup palette” derives from the word meaning “to protect.” My ancestors believed Kohl eyeliner protected them against the harsh sunlight or the Evil Eye; I believe the eyeliner I apply every day protects me against the harsh days of pandemic and perimenopause.
It does so with what I call Deliberate Beauty.
In 2011 when my arms were both in a cast, unable to do the simplest of things for myself, and adrift in a bottomless pit of grief, I felt I had been robbed of beauty. I could present my two broken arms and say “Here are my wounds” but I did not know what to point to by way of explaining what that trauma had robbed from me.
Beauty, it had stolen beauty.
And so bit by bit I rebuilt it.
After a visit to the orthopedic surgeon’s clinic, whether it was to determine how well my arm was healing from surgery or after painful physical therapy, I would find a nearby nail salon and get my nails manicured and painted green and tweet the pictures - complete with a cast covering half of my hands.
Here I am, my green nails said. One step in front of another trying to walk forward to beauty: “listen I love you joy is coming.”
I also became a regular at the hair salon. The first day I went in, everyone from receptionist to stylists to colourists, buoyed me in a protective shell of affection and care. Stylists who weren’t doing anything would volunteer to wash my hair until the stylist who was to diffuse dry my hair as big and curly as I wanted it to be was ready. My 30 minutes at the salon were a most necessary respite for my heart, adrift and bereft. That community of love and beauty whispered to that heart “We know you’re strong. Look at what you survived. You can be soft here, we’ve got you.”
And then an actual robbery took out the bottom from my bottomless pit of grief. It took the theft of a suitcase seven months after I was assaulted to break me in a way that three fractures could not.
I am not a materialistic person. I own very few things. I have no house (I rent), no car, no savings in the bank, no assets, no fancy furniture. My laptop, smartphone, a 1950s red recliner and my books are my possessions. And I recognize those are much more than many people own.
It was my first ever tattoo; it took engraving my body to save my heart.
My suitcase was stolen during a layover in Tripoli airport in Libya in June 2012. The theft inflicted a sharp and desperate pain that hurt me more than my actual assault. I was astounded at how much it hurt. I did not cry after I was assaulted. But when it became clear that my suitcase would never return, I would run into the bathroom and sob, convulsively, into the sink, as quietly as I could because I did not want my parents to hear me break down. When I disappeared for 12 hours after a protest on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in November 2011, they thought I had died. After all I’d put them through with my own disappearance, I did not want them to see me break down over the disappearance of a suitcase,
I not only survived my assault but here I was back in Egypt less than a year after the regime sent its riot police to assault and detain me. And here I was sobbing into the bathroom sink, breaking down over a fucking suitcase.
The suitcase made material my grief and made Deliberate Beauty even more urgent.
When my arms were still broken, I promised myself that when my casts came off, I would get a tattoo on each arm. There is a scar on my left forearm, a refrain to grief, where the orthopedic surgeon cut into my arm to adjust a compound fracture I received via the nightsticks of Egyptian police. As proud as I am of that scar, I did not choose that mark. I wanted a marking that I chose. And I wanted beauty that could not be stolen like that suitcase.
Two months after my suitcase was stolen, I got a tattoo of the ancient Egyptian goddess Sekhmet tattooed on my right inner forearm. It was my first ever tattoo; it took engraving my body to save my heart.
I learned from Margot Mifflin’s Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, that women who survive sexual violence increasingly choose body art as a way to reclaim our bodies - to say, basically, that whatever it was that you took, regardless of what you took, I own my body, still.
Before I was assaulted, I had no interest in tattoos. But there I was in a tattoo parlour in Brooklyn having what felt like a million blades cut into my skin with the aim of creating one of the most beautiful works of art on my arm. The American artist Molly Crabapple drew her for me. I wanted to inscribe and reconstruct beauty and there is art on my arm: I look at my Sekhmet and she is fierce, tender, powerful, beautiful and mine. She is all tits and hips, femininity as power.
My first tattoo honoured my Egyptian heritage through Sekhmet. My second tattoo honoured my first language Arabic via calligraphy of the name of the street where I was assaulted--Mohamed Mahmoud--an icon of our revolutionary year where at least 40 people were killed by police and soldiers during five days of protests and 300, including me, were wounded. Next to it is the Arabic word for liberation because we were liberated on that street. The calligraphy, drawn by Egyptian artist Mahmoud Ghandour is a reminder forever inscribed on my skin of the beauty of Arabic.
Ancient Egypt and the power of the goddess on my right arm. The courage and resilience of revolution rendered in the beautiful letters of Arabic on my left arm. Forever mine. Never to be taken. My mother goddess on one arm. My mother tongue on the other.
And now, as I draw on Deliberate Beauty again for these harsh days of pandemic and perimenopause I learn that for ancient Egyptians, eyeliner was not just to enhance appearance and it was not just for this life. Cosmetics were found in the graves of men, women, and children. Deliberate Beauty for what is ahead too!
In fact, “according to ancient Egyptian manuscripts, eye makeup was believed to have a magical role, in which the gods Horus and Ra would protect wearers against several illnesses.”
A detail of a painting from the tomb of Nakht depicting three ladies at a feast. They wear perfumed cones in their hair and elaborate necklaces. Egypt, 18th dynasty, ca. 1421–1413 B.C.E. Tomb no. 52, West Thebes. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images) via artsy.net
The pandemic, a most awful illness, has killed at least 2.5 million people around the world so far. And we have not reckoned with the magnitude of our pain and grief. We are not prepared for the bottom of the bottomless pit of grief as we anticipate and eagerly plan to emerge into the world once more.
We need protection and healing in this time of plague. Those of us who did not die must prepare to take our individual grief out into the world, find our place in communal mourning and nurturing and whisper to each other’s hearts “We know you’re strong. Look at what you survived. You can be soft here, we’ve got you.”
Every morning as I engrave my eyelids with turquoise, teal, mauve, or bronze, I am a calligrapher once again, rewriting that love letter to myself to remember joy and to prepare for that reckoning.
Every morning as I lovingly paint around my eyes, I am protecting myself with daily joy and building strength for what is to come. My ritual of Deliberate Beauty is an investment in the strength of my heart. It connects me to a heritage extending millenia before me and which demands, as it looks ahead, urgently, “Find beauty! Joy is coming!”
Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author, commentator and disruptor of patriarchy. Her first book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (2015) targeted patriarchy in the Middle East and North Africa and her second The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls (2019) took her disruption worldwide. Her commentary has appeared in media around the world and she makes video essays and writes a newsletter as FEMINIST GIANT.
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